Thursday, August 2, 2012

Night Ceremony

I did exactly as I was told. I pulled the red shorts on that were too big. Red, they had said, symbolizes the red earth, the red blood, the red rage of war. The shorts were a bit too big but that didn't matter, they said, no they were the only red ones I had so they would have to do. Then came the black shirt (black for night, death, sleep, and the hidden things) and the green hoodie (had to be a hoodie, something with a hood, they said, because we would not want to offend the headless by appearing with our heads visible).

The next part involved supplies. It was a laundry list that could have been ordinary for any kind of hike. Except this hike was happening at night. Midnight to be precise. On August 1st, the night of the first full moon. The night that was marked by ancient people as Lammas, the first of the Autumn feasts. But I didn't know that at the time and I really didn't care. I was just doing as they had told me.

You will need a candle, she had said, as she fleeted around the edged of the mirror frame, and a knife to slice it in two. Two candles now, that had been one. The one I placed in front of the mirror. The other, I slid in my pocket. Next was the bottle. Full of ice cold water, straight from the fridge. I poured it over my hands, my feet, my head. That was for purifying, they had said. Apparently taking a normal bath wasn't good enough. But then again, they have a lot of funny rules when it comes to this kind of stuff. Like making sure all the water fell on some kind of dirt. I just used a potted plant. That would do, right?

Next came the lighter, lighting the candle in front of the mirror, I slid it into my pocket next to the candle half. Then I took the water bottle and filled it with water from the tap. Back in front of the mirror she told me, now hold the water over the flame and pass it through it thrice. Thrice? Really? Who says that anymore? Why not just three times? But I did and it changed color, turning an amber gold. She seemed to approve.

You're a fast learner for a boy, she sniffed, even though in my time we did not let boys take the walk. I asked her why not but she wouldn't say. Instead she ordered me more (pour some out into a cup, its called a libation) and then curled into the mirror with silver tendrils. Sometimes I wished my grandmother had never given me the mirror. But not tonight, tonight it was finally going to pay off. All the months and months of befriending the girl who appeared in the reflection, peaked around corners in the mirror at me.

I walked into the kitchen and grabbed the final thing required. A piece of bread. She had said it should be fresh baked but this was the best I could do on short notice. I walked down the stairs and out the door but as I was about to close it I heard a soft sussurus on the wind. I waivered. She appeared in tendrils of silver.

You cannot leave yet, she spoke to me in haunting underwater echoes, you must drink of the bottle in your hand, so that you may have protection. I didn't realize I would need protection, but I took a swig anyway. Whatever the water had turned into it tasted very much like the rum and raisin pie my mom had always made when I was young. But it was much less sweet, with the force and the burn of a thousand fires tickling my tonsils and burning down my esophagus to go lie in my stomach like a sliver of molten led glowing at my core.

Now you are safeguarded until you reach the stones, she said and was gone in her tendrilly way, as I moved away from the door and down the road. It was a familiar road, but as all things take on a haunted look in the pale contrasting light of the full moon, I now found this road to be omniously chilling. I stepped on anyway.

The air was motionless, no wind to make the leaves scratch along the concrete. Which made it sound a million times louder when I stepped on one of the crunchy ones. But there wasn't time to stop and freak out properly. I knew where they wanted me to go. I had known somehow, even before they had told me. There would be the ridge and the blackberry bushes and the old stones sitting on top of each other on the trail that ran on the ridge above the houses. I had been there a few weeks before when the very first blackberries had come into fruit. Tonight the air would be heavy and warm with their sweet perfume.

But my thoughts were interrupted by the voice wheezing beside me from the thinnest air as it breathed, In ancient times we would go up in hordes. Thousands and Thousands of us would go and make a bonfire on  the hill and we would drink the water of life and we would dance naked under the stars and the bright silver moon. But that was a long time ago and now only we ghost are left to walk with you up the hill, it wheezed as it flew by. To anyone else it looked like a dragonfly. Though of course real dragonflies don't fly around at night. Not like these. They rose around me, Thousand and Thousands of them as I kept walking to the cul de sac where the road ended and the trail would begin.

Beware the Hound of God who guards the way, breathed the ghosts as they flitted away on false dragonfly wings. There was no hound in sight. Nothing but a porche parked on the curb next to where the trail started. It sat and its glossy coat of paint radiated sleek sharpness against the pale black of night. It was a whole other shade of black. A black that could cut life a knife and still gleam with hunger.

"Hound of God you say?" I whispered to the still night.

We cannot help you now, they whispered, but maybe it will let you pass. I was thrilled by the sureness of their statements. As I approached they whispered more, But of course it faces the path and not the street so it must guard against what could come down from the hill above your houses. It cares little for the ones who could walk towards the danger, their voices held anything but compassion. I pressed on.

It wasn't so much a growl. More like a car engine starting a thousand miles away. A faint hum with just the hint of acceleration and anger. I steered clear of the car and began walking up the path away from the street. And as I did I noticed for the first time the depth of the shadows cast by the trees hanging over the trail. The pale moon light inked the darkness and rolled it into phantom forms that twisted and stared back at me with black eyes and reaching fingers. The molten lead in my belly jerked and flooded my senses with warmth.

I stepped on, telling myself that the shapes that moved in the darkness were only shapes made by shadow. And what was shadow other than merely the absence of light. I stepped in under the darkness of the trees and the molten lead leapt once more. I pushed onward, step and step after step. My breathing was coming harder and faster and I told myself it was only because of the incline of the trail and not because my heart was beating so fast that it felt like a mini heart attack as imminent. Could people really die from fear? I pushed the question from my mind and kept walking.

At the top the trail ended in a T with another. I turned and the darkness here was worse. It did not coil and turn and look at my with black eyes and reaching fingers. No the darkness here was worse because it stood perfectly still and did not coil or reach. It need not take form at my approach because it was already fully formed. Whatever this darkness was it was itself already. And it was not reaching or watching or breathing. It was waiting. I stepped onward, reminding myself that fear was part of the lowest animal instincts, that it was the bases of chakras that was closed by it, that all animals felt fear.

"I'm just as afraid of the dark as a cat is afraid of a human hand offering it food for the first time." I spoke to the ghost who still had not rejoined me. The molten lead's glow beamed again but more faintly this time. But as much as I wanted to tell myself that the darkness was nothing but a hand held out to me, I knew deep down that it was more a hand I would have to snatch from and run. That there were things that would chase me if I ran.

And then I saw it before me, a little ways off, the large oak tree that grew up and shaded the three massive boulders that faced out over the hill towards the full moon. They were bathed in silver moon light with vein like shadows of the oak tree tracing their forms. Dry and dusty moss was all over them and crackling lichen stood up at odd angles. And beyond them were the blackberry bushes. Massive mounds of rising thorny canes that looped back into themselves a hundred hundred times over until a mass of canes and thorns and leaves and flowers stood mammoth-like against the silverpale moon light. And now it was covered in specks of midnight, a million black antepodes to the stars.

I walked the final stretch and heard the whisper of before as my feet touched moonlight and they said, tonight is the first night of the sacred three. The next is on the autumn equinox, one full moon from this eve, the after is on All Hallows Eve, when the Gate is open. I wanted to ask them what the Gate was and why they were telling me but I was interrupted by a feeling. The feeling of ice. Like a single drop of the coldest ice water was sliding slowly, finger-like down the curve of my back, tracking each vertabrae of my spine. It started with a crunch of a leaf, right behind me.

I moved forward. I did not run. I was in the moonlight now as I hastely placed the other half of the candle on the stone and lit it with the lighter in my pocket. That done, I walked over to the blackberry bushes. I glanced sideway as I did, towards the path I had come from. There I saw him, standing in the shadows of the trees I had emerged from, a piece of velvet midnight plastered into the mortal world. He did not move and I could only sneak a peak for a second. Somehow I knew to look longer would be an invitation for him to join me. That was not something I cared for at the moment.

Instead I went to work, looking for a ripe blackberry using mostly touch and smell. I had grown up with them, knew the nuiances to finding the right berries. Firm but not hard, soft but not squishy. These things were important. Too hard and the berry was too sour and too seedy; squishy and the berry would be bitter and probably with insect larva inside. You had to smell the ripest bunches out, squeeze ever so slightly at the single berry hanging at the very end of the clump, only that one would be ripe. The rest would need at least a week more. And I had to do it all by moonlight too.

I did as I was told, grabbing the first one and pulling it off with a twist. I placed it in my mouth and bit down, letting the sour sweet juices dripped through my teeth before I spat it on the ground. Nothing wrong with it. That was the first step. Then I searched for more. The next one went into my palm and stayed there. The next one in my mouth and this time I let the dark juices linger, like liquid night before I let it slide down my throat, the sourness a welcome relief after the earlier molten lead. This continued until I had eaten three and saved three. Then I walked back to the lit candle. Another quick glance told me he was still there, watching me.

I pulled the bread from my pocket and threw two pieces from it on the spot I spat my blackberry out. I knew the next part was important. I pulled strips of the bread away and formed them into the figure of a man. I placed this next to the candle. Then I placed the berries down on the other side of the candle. This was it. I pulled my hood back and exposed my head, and looked towards the spot the velvet streak of night had been before. It wasn't there anymore. Instead I felt the slow sliver of ice again slide down my back as the flame shuddered. Even though there was no wind.

For a second in which my heartbeat a million times more than it should and I held my breath I waited and did nothing. I didn't know why. I hadn't done this before. I didn't know the rules. All I knew was that she told me that at this point I would know true fear. And I did.

 I had asked her why fear, what was so important about fear. She had tried to reach and touch me then, but failed as her hand passed through me as she said, Fear is an emotion like any other, but it is the first emotion. It is the first emotion we feel at birth, the first emotion we feel when we encounter something new, and the first emotion we feel at death. It is the emotion of change. But upon it all the others rest and from it any other emotion can be cultivated. Fear can birth loyalty, madness, hatred, submission, apathy, resentment, zealotry, sadness and even love. All of these come first from fear and always retain a thread of it in their weaving. Look at the purest love, the mother's love. Even that entwines with the fear of losing her child, of her child rejecting her. We think fear taints all these other pure emotions but it does nothing more than birth them. That is why you must feel true, raw fear. If you do not run from fear but let it fill you, you can let it flow from you into others. And why would you want others to fear you? Because fear is the first emotion it means you can make others feel any emotion you want from the fear you fill them with, she whispered from the glass.

But I did not know if I wanted power like that. No, honestly, I knew. I didn't want it but I wouldn't refuse it either. I was there now with the silver moon over my shoulder and the flame before me with the offering of bread and berries, a most ancient offering it would seem. And standing between me and the moon the way I stood between the moon and the flame, was the piece of velvet. The Headless One. He had come for the feast I had brought. Only later would I question myself on how the headless could eat the offering given. In the moment it made perfect sense to me. As did the fact that I should leave.

Wait, came the whisper of the false dragonflies, You must first drink to ensure your safety home. And I looked at the water bottle in my hand and was dumbstuck. I had only taken a single swig at the door and now it was already half empty. I took another swig and saw it remain mostly at the same level. And yet I knew that by the time I reached the door it would be empty. I wondered if it would decrease everytime I felt the hot lead. It didn't matter I knew I should leave. The cold velvet behind me felt hungry. Like he hadn't eaten for centuries.

I walked away, struck that the shadows did no seem nearly as dark as they had before. I looked up and saw the ink blue of night almost radiating light against the dark obsidian of the tree cover I walked in. It was funny to think I was looking at a much purer darkness right then, one filled with a million million suns who all blazed lonely forth in their own glory, alone save for a few speck of rock that had managed to begin circling them. So much dark. So much night. What was there truly for me to fear?

He will not feast long on that, they winged past me at speeds no normal dragonfly could keep, and he will soon pursue. I was frustrated by the lack of help they seemed to possess. First with the Hound of God and now with this. The ghost of past walkers seemed to be no help at all. As if reading my thoughts others winging by breathed in response, You should leave more of the bread. Yes drop the whole chunk and run for it. No, place some here and some there and throw it away from the trail to by time, contradicted another as it passed the first dragonfly. I could now fainty see the smallest of figured riding on the backs of the gossamer insects. None of the figures seemed to have heads.

"What happens if he catches up to me?" I asked as I kept walking, all romantic ideas of lonely distant starts now forgotten.

He will take your head back up the hill, said one matter-of-factly, it happened all the time in the old days. Hundreds of youth up on the hill, dancing and drinking and making love under the stars and letting their passions go unbridled. One was chosen and sacrificed and one less head returned to the village the next morning, the riders on the dragonflies spoke in long distance echoes.

I knew now that was what I had been truly fearing and dreading, as I tore a piece off from the remnants of bread in my hands that had no gone to making the bread man. The fear I had felt was not fear of the dark or the shadows or the beast of the night or the people in the dark. The fear I had felt was the fear of the sacrifice. The fear of the scythe of death breathing on my outstretched neck. I dropped another piece of bread and kept walking.

"This is kinda like Hansel and Grettel. But in reverse." I spoke to the darkness and myself.

It is exactly, she answered as she appeared floating next to me wreathed in her silvery tendrils, what did you think their story was really about? Chosen as sacrifices they ran through the woods and dropped bread so that their pursuer would have to stop every few steps to feed first. They ran out of bread or the crows at some or something like that and they had to use stones, which did not work. And so in the end they were eaten, she spoke. I wanted to correct her but knew I needed her help, so I just dropped some more bread instead as I kept walking back to where the T intersection stood.

In my time we wouldn't have brought a boy out on Lammas, she echoed from afar next to me, because everyone knows the sacrifice must be chosen from the boys. In fact I am surprised you were not eaten yet, she said as if she was impressed and I just dropped more bread as she kept going, Of course if you had been a girl it would have been much easier. No one may lay a finger in a girl on this night.

"Well, I'm not so if you're not going to help you can at least leave me to focus." I growled at her and she vanished with a sniff. Great, now I had no guide.

I walked the thinner trail back as it snaked through the place again where the darkness coiled and squirmed to get closer to me. As I did I also heard the rustling leaves behind me. There still wasn't any wind. I quickened my pace and started tearing smaller pieces of bread off as I realized I was running perilously low on the bread. I knew I only needed a few more steps and I would be out from the shadows and the trees and in view of the Hound of God. The rustling drew nearer. The feel of the ice on my back warred with the softening glow of molten lead at my core.

And then there was light. I stepped out from the trees and bathed in the glorious silver light of the moon. The fear and dread seemed to bleed out of my pours and pour off of my back along with the sliver of ice at my spine. I wanted to grin, to shout, to jump and whoop that I had overcome the Headless One. I looked back at the forest trail and the deep shadows still coiling except for one patch of deepest velvet night that did not move. I stared at it, waiting,  I didn't know, for what. Maybe for a pair of glowing eyes, or for the sudden swoop of leathery wings, or for the return of the icy sliver. But nothing came except the impatient growl of a car starting a hundred miles away coming from the black porche waiting where the trail ended and the street began. I walked by and smiled at the Hound of God so cleverly disguised.

A cold voice cut sharply across my thoughts.

I made my way back and as I did I opened my hand. There it was, the thing I had done all this for. All that remained of the bread that had first been made into a substitute sacrifice and then had saved my life by buying time from the Headless One. The small piece no larger than a penny in my palm. But it felt heavier and had the electric smell of ozone burning around it. It was no longer ordinary bread. As I had absorbed fear, it had absorbed power.

What will you do with it, they whispered excitedly as they realized I had saved some of the bread, You can burn it and scattered the ashes on your hands. Then tonight you will write like never before and write novel after novel and all will be best sellers, they offered me. She appeared in her silver vines and spoke too, You can burn it and scattered the ashes on the windowsill of the one you love and she will also love you.

I knew why I had gone through this, why I had saved the last piece of bread. As I walked up the road to the house, I saw the bottle was now indeed empty. I had been right. And that made me feel better about what I was about to do. I was probably right about the piece of sacred bread now too. I looked out my bedroom window and saw the dark piece of velvet standing under a street light at the corner of the road. Then I took off the red shorts, the green hoodie, the black t shirt until I was completely naked. And I took the bread and I ate it. And I looked out of the window and the velvet night was gone. And I felt the molten lead from before start in my stomach and spread along my veins. Soon it coursed on nerves and errupted on neurons and then coated my skin until I was glowing gold all over and the head radiating from me set the carpet on fire and melted the plastic venetian blinds on my window. My vision filled with golden light and then I was gone. Like the piece of velvet in the street below. And she retreated back into her glass in silver tendrils. I had done all I had been asked to do.

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